Why Subaru faces an even tougher job defending its title
Last year, Subaru finally managed to do what it had been aiming to for more than two decades - to win the championship in SUPER GT’s ultra-competitive GT300 class.
Factory drivers Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi took the new second-generation BRZ to four pole positions of a possible eight and the same number of podiums to record the manufacturer’s most significant achievement in motorsport since Petter Solberg won the 2003 WRC title.
It also marked the first GT300 title win for a non-FIA GT3 car in five years, something that has triggered a predictable backlash in terms of the Balance of Performance for the 2022 season amid complaints that the ‘JAF’ cars, as they are still known in the paddock, had become too quick.
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Now, Iguchi and Yamauchi and the rest of the R&D Sport-run Subaru squad face a task even more daunting than winning the title in the first place, which is taking the crown for a second time in succession - something no team has ever done in the GT300 class with the same drivers before in SUPER GT’s history.
“Firstly, the BoP for the GT300 cars has gotten tougher since last year, so it’s not going to be an easy task,” Subaru general manager Masahiro Ozawa told Motorsport.com. “On the other hand, the easy thing to do would be to not touch the car and stick to what we were doing before. But that’s not our mentality, and we wanted to challenge ourselves with car development even more than before.
“We weren’t very consistent in pre-season testing. We were trying new things, and we went over the limit and some parts broke. Due to braking troubles, we had two crashes. But we managed to sort everything out, and because we were able to evolve as a team, I think it was a good off-season.”
Indeed, as a result of the crashes, both of which took place at Okayama, and the BoP changes which robbed the BRZ of approximately four percent of its turbo boost pressure, expectations were fairly muted for Subaru coming into the season-opener at the former Pacific Grand Prix venue earlier this month.
That was until Yamauchi stormed to a fifth pole for the #61 car in the span of eight races, and while tyre degradation in the race meant victory was never on the cards, a rarer starter problem in the pits denied he and Iguchi a likely podium spot and relegating the duo to ninth place in the final classification.
Still, it was an encouraging start to the season considering the BoP changes alone are, according to Ozawa, worth around half a second of laptime.
“Thanks to the changes we made to the suspension, we’ve been able to improve our cornering speed quite a lot, and with the aerodynamics we were able to reduce the ‘Cd’ [drag coefficient] while improving downforce,” he said.
“So even more so than last year, we are fast in the corners, so we think we have been able to recover most of the half-a-second per lap we lost from the BoP.”
However, the fact the BRZ has become even more of a ‘cornering car’ in 2022 and comparatively weaker on the straights means that qualifying at the head of the packed 28-car GT300 field is now even more vital.
“The way we produce our laptime has changed,” he said. “Even more than before, we have to qualify up front to have a chance in the race. We think Fuji [with its kilometre-long start/finish straight] will be particularly hard this year.
“And anyway, last year it wasn’t as if the GT3 cars were slow, they were always fast in the long runs, so I think it will be hard for the GT300s this year.”
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
While Ozawa was expecting a hit with the BoP, he said he was surprised that Subaru’s weight remains unchanged from last year, with the reduction in boost pressure the only change - something which makes it even more challenging to compete with the FIA GT3 cars in a race situation.
“The biggest issue right now is we can’t overtake the GT3s on the straights,” he explained. “Unless we qualify up front, we can’t have a good race. So it would be better to be heavier and have more power, and then we can battle more easily.
“But the good point is that we can develop over the season. I’m hoping therefore that we can improve our level and that by the end of the year it will be easier.”
This season, the number of home-grown GT300s on the SUPER GT grid has increased to nine (or 11 if you count the two so-called ‘Mother Chassis’ cars), with some teams seemingly inspired by the recent success of the BRZ and other cars such as the Toyota GR Supra against the previously-dominant GT3s.
Subaru spoke last year of the possibility of supplying its BRZ to other teams if the interest was there, but when asked for an update on the situation, Ozawa points out one major hurdle to having a second car on the grid.
“The weak point is our engine. It’s not the most durable,” he admitted. “We can’t run with one single engine for the whole season. So any prospective customer would need to understand that.
"There is no limit in the rules, and usually we use three engines a season, which is quite a lot. Most teams will get by with just one engine.”
The engine was a major talking point for Subaru in the pre-season, as it revealed it had been working on a new ECU for its four-pot boxer engine to replace the version it had been using since its WRC heyday. Finally, the decision was made to go back to the trusty previous 'Windows XP' version, which appeared to pay off with the performance shown at Okayama.
And while the team may have only come away from the curtain-raiser with three points to show for their efforts, they will be light on success ballast for next week’s Golden Week race at Fuji, before the BRZ heads into to more favourable territory at Suzuka for the first of two visits to the track this year.
Further BoP changes can’t be ruled out, but if everything stays the same, you have to conclude that Subaru has as just about as good a chance as any team has ever had of ending the GT300 champion’s jinx.
“Because of the trouble we had in the off-season, and all the development we did, everyone was really exhausted,” said Ozawa when asked how the atmosphere in the team had changed since winning the title.
“But because we won the championship, we feel like we’ve become a real top team and the motivation is very high. Everyone is focused on doing an even better job, so it’s a good situation inside the team.”
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